For people who have read our site, or any other site with an eye to travel, the benefits of visiting somewhere new are well understood: the chance to widen one’s understanding, gain a new perspective, and meet new and different kinds of people is enough to get most people in the know into a car or an airplane. But once people arrive in a new place, with bags and guidebooks and lists of recommendations from friends, the ways they go about exploring that place differ enormously. The methods that different people employ to explore new places vary according to their tastes, desires, and experience. There are the history buffs, the museum rats, the barflies, the fine diners, the street diners, the tour takers, and the flâneurs. If we had to commit to a favorite method of exploration, it would most certainly be the flânerie.
The idea of the flâneur (the person) and his flânerie (the walk itself) has its roots in the 19th century, founded in Baudelaire’s concept of the wandering, wealthy urban dandy, strolling the city aimlessly, just observing. Since then the identity of the flâneur has changed with the times: increased free time means that more classes of people have the opportunity to spend a few hours here and there just wandering, watching, and learning. We propose that travelers, being removed from daily routines and commitments, are ideal flâneurs. The benefits of aimlessly wandering a foreign city—eyes and mind open, but not expectant—seem obvious. But travelers who wander are doing more than just looking: by exposing themselves to the unplanned, un-sanitized, and unfamiliar, they’re committing a radical act of cultural dislocation.
Wandering can absolutely be a radical act, especially in today’s world of hyper-developed tourism. It’s possible to visit many foreign destinations and never interact with a local person who isn’t being paid to interact with you. Beach resorts, cruises, bus tours, package tours: this is tourism centered around sites, not places. To experience a place, the traveler must take a risk and embrace the unfamiliar because actually being somewhere is important. Few people would argue, for example, that a photograph is an acceptable substitute for actually standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon; why should we expect a photograph to sufficiently capture anything, be it a national park, a coastline, a city, or a slum? The flâneur goes a step further, stripping away every layer of separation. After all, to see a city from the window of a tour bus is still observing that city from a certain remove. The vehicle window is not much different than a photograph: you’re “here” looking at these things which are “there.” What’s happening outside the window is completely different than what’s happening where you actually are.
The flâneur gets into the thick of it, whatever it is, and starts to wander. She walks unfamiliar streets to watch the habits of unfamiliar people. It’s obvious to all of them, of course, that she is well outside of her home culture, but as a foreigner, she’s existing outside of theirs, as well. She exists between two worlds. In a way, she is nowhere. But here’s where the revolutionary part comes in: by existing outside of any system, any culture, the flâneur is a potential danger to the established order of both her own world and the world she’s visiting. She’s proof that “where one is” is only a part of who they are. She’s a testament to the fact that the basic stuff of being human—the footsteps one takes, the way one appreciates beauty, the smile one gives in response to delicious smells, or the street play of children—is universal. The flâneur, far outside the proscribed orbit of her culture, is, in a small way, demonstrating the universality of humanity. It’s no accident that one of the most common traits of totalitarian regimes is the limitation of travel: power relies on fear and suspicion, but the traveler, particularly when given free rein to wander beyond the scripted places, quickly dismantles these lies: all Americans are not rude, all Muslims are not terrorists, all Mexicans are not criminals, all Africans are not trying to make a quick buck. The list of idiotic assumptions our cultures assign to others is endless, but on the street, the flâneur is just another person with a human face, grabbing a bite from a vendor, walking in a crowd toward the market. In the face of this direct contact, it’s harder to cling to the breeding of prejudice.
What does all this mean? It means get out more. All the propaganda and political nonsense in the world can’t overpower person to person interaction. Walking around isn’t going to change the world, but not all radical acts have global results: some make only personal, but nonetheless immeasurable, impacts. When one travels, but continues to exist in a separate space from the place they’re visiting, they haven’t gone anywhere. And nobody learns anything they haven’t already been told about anybody. Just like photographs are no substitute for “being there,” stories are no substitute for being among and meeting real people. Real people don’t live among monuments: they live in neighborhoods far from downtowns. They buy food at markets, not five star restaurants. They don’t go to museums; they go to work. The real culture of a place cannot be seen from anywhere but the street, among the people who give that culture life. The best way, the only way, to explore the streets at such a close level is by walking, aimlessly, eyes open, watching, and learning, while the place you’re visiting watches you and learns as well. As people interact, connections are made, ideas are changed and reformed, knowledge is increased, and the world is changed.